Five simple ideas to improve Toronto’s parks
March 21, 2016
Last week Christopher Hume at the Toronto Star wrote about modest steps that could improve Toronto. He talked about more scramble intersections, upgraded St. Lawrence Market area parks, and better pedestrian experiences.
We often get bogged down with big, complex problems in Toronto (we are a big, complex city after all), but it’s good to be reminded that sometimes simple, relatively inexpensive fixes can go a long way to make the city more enjoyable for everyone.
It got me thinking about what five simple, inexpensive things we could do right now to improve parks in Toronto. Here’s my list. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas, as well.
Create a Community Group Event permit
Okay, so it’s not a super sexy topic, but permits are important. They’re important because they regulate our use of public space in ways that are needed (making sure we all have equitable access to our open spaces) and annoying (being costly and confusing for most folks).
In recognition of this, Toronto recently created two new permits for art and music events that are free and simple to apply for.
This is great, but it leaves out the wonderful, small volunteer-run community events that local residents put on in their parks.
Right now these groups need to apply for Social Gathering or Special Event Permits which can cost between $90 and $125 once all fees and insurance requirements are fulfilled. Not cheap when you’re already putting a lot of time and energy into doing an event for your neighbourhood.
So let’s create a new Community Group Event category that is free and simple to apply for. You’d need to be a local community group and limit your event to, say, less than 75 people to ensure it’s not a big impact kind of event on the park.
The City is reviewing its permit system this year. Hopefully it builds on its great work around art and music events with a Community Group Event permit.
Install more benches and social spaces
Whenever I travel to other cities and come back to Toronto I’m always re-amazed at one thing: the lack of places to sit in parks and on streets. It’s gotten better in the last five years, but we are really stingy on benches in Toronto. They’re not super expensive, but they do so much to make a public space, whether it’s a street or park, more inviting and usable.
Benches aren’t just nice-to-haves, they’re crucial for children, older adults, and people with mobility issues who may need to sit down and rest and can’t curl up easily on a blanket on the grass. Even popular parks like Trinity Bellwoods and Christie Pits have a dearth of places to sit.
I’d like to see Toronto get behind the super-long benches that you find along park pathways in New York.
Or how about lunch tables that seat just two or three people rather than big standard picnic tables all the time? I know these would go over well in the downtown park near my office where everyone hunches over take-out containers balanced on their knees.
Put up message boards in parks
Perhaps with the new wayfinding strategy the City is working on, this will soon be an item I can cross off the list. I know from speaking with many community volunteers who do things in their park that reaching out to their neighbours and letting them know what’s happening in the park can be difficult sometimes.
Social media is great, but having a physical place in parks to post notices, event details, upcoming meetings, funny pictures—whatever—would really help people reach their neighbours and share information.
More friendly park signs
My favourite Toronto park sign is found in Sunnybrook Park staked into the ground next to the parking lot overlooking the cricket pitch. Have a nice day, it says. Or the Toronto Islands sign that says, Please walk on the grass. They make me smile.
Toronto park signs don’t often make me smile. Too often I’m greeted with a huge list of items with a red slash through them. Don’t do this. Or that. Nope. Don’t even try it. Forget about it. Oh, and enjoy! I wrote about this previously after visiting Milliken Park, which has some of the harshest NO signs I’ve come across.
Let’s flip our messaging from negative to positive as much as we can. First, welcome people to the park. If there are things that can’t take place (dogs off leash, leaving pathways, etc.), use it as an opportunity to explain why, rather than simply banning the activity with a red slash. Educate people on the sensitivity of natural areas and the erosion that dogs can cause. Maybe include a list of suggested activities (picnics, reading a book under a tree) as a cute way to balance things out.
Outdoor recreation programming
We have a lot of community centres in parks, which have various programs for things like yoga, art, tai chi and lots of other activities. Unfortunately, these take place inside the four walls of the community centre even though there is great, wonderful, life-giving green space right outside.
New York has a big summer program of outdoor classes that take advantage of the city’s great parks. Let’s move some of our recreation programming outside the walls of the community centres and outside into our parks. Or how about libraries that are near parks? Maybe we can get some children literacy programs outside instead of indoors?
What are your ideas for simple, inexpensive ways to improve our parks?
This post is written by Jake Tobin Garrett. Jake is a writer and wanderer living in Toronto who works as manager of policy and research for Park People